Joyce, Homer and an epic centennial celebration in 18 cities
“The whole world is a stage, And all men and women are but actors,” says Jacques in Shakespeare’s woodland comedy As You Like It. In his still controversial masterpiece Ulysses, James Joyce chose to define his own world stage by the streets and entrances and hotels and shops and taverns of Dublin, around which his central characters Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus wander through of a single day.
Writing from Trieste, Zurich and Paris, during and after the Great War and the Spanish flu pandemic, Joyce was inspired, both in structure and in the thematic content of his novel, by Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey, which recounts the immense human catastrophe which was the Trojan War.
Homer expanded his geographical net considerably by following Odysseus, king of Ithaca, on his 10-year journey home at the end of the war. Odysseus wanders hither and thither through the ancient Mediterranean world and is depicted not as a heroic warrior but as a simple man, subject to human frailty and flaws, who encounters and overcomes many seemingly insurmountable difficulties as he goes. measure of its path.
A century after Ulysses was published, arts entrepreneurs Liam Browne and Seán Doran of Arts Over Borders Ireland (AOB) have combined these two seminal texts to construct an epic parallel journey across Europe.
Ulysses: A European Odyssey will be presented by a network of creative partners, companies and individual artists in 18 cities – Athens, Vilnius, Paris, Budapest, Trieste, Marseille, Berlin, San Sebastian, Copenhagen, Istanbul, Cluj, Zurich, Gronigen, Eleusis, Oulu, Lisbon, Dublin and Derry – one for each of the novel’s 18 episodes.
The project has just received a €1.78 million grant from Creative Europe’s Large Scale Funding category. AOB is the main artistic partner.
“Creative Europe is the only dedicated arts funding stream from the European Commission and the only one capable of supporting a project of such scope and scale,” says Doran, who refers to as a “transformative moment” the agreement from Dutch producer Claudia Woolgar to come on board as initial producer of AOB.
“Claudia and I had worked together on projects in the 1990s. She is now based in another European country and has her own company, aptly called Brave New World. It was she who pragmatically began to open up her contacts in the different cities and push the doors towards potential partnerships. So it made perfect sense for her to be the lead partner in terms of bidding and for us to be the lead partner in terms of artistic vision and overseeing the entire project.
Browne and Doran have delivered a series of what they call bio-festivals: multimedia, multi-arts responses to the work of a single author. To date, the list includes Samuel Beckett, Brian Friel, Oscar Wilde, TS Eliot and, in 2023, Robert Graves. In this year of AOB’s 10th anniversary, July will see the return of the Beckett and Friel festivals to Ennsikillen and Glenties respectively.
But, for obvious reasons, 2022 is truly the year of Odysseus.
“From the start, the strongest thing for us was to see Ulysses as a great European work of art”
“About three years ago we started thinking about the centenary of Odysseus and the fact that there would be a lot of things coming out of Ireland,” says Browne.
“From the beginning, the strongest thing for us was that we considered Ulysses to be a great European work of art. At the very end of the book are the words ‘Trieste-Zurich-Paris’, so it couldn’t be clearer.
“It’s easy to forget that in Joyce’s mental landscape he was completely in Dublin but in his daily life, where he ate, where he slept, the streets he walked, he was in continental Europe and that fueled the novel.
“When we started talking to potential partners, what was wonderful was that they felt exactly the same way. Even those who hadn’t actually read the book felt it was part of the culture. European Union. We held Zoom meetings with organizations and individuals across Europe who, without Ulysses, would never have met. Even in these early stages, it was wonderful to explore and develop ideas from this unique work, and to feel the mutual trust emerging as new partners joined.
The importance of human interaction within the boundaries of a city is a recurring theme in Joyce’s work and has formed a crucial part of the Creative Europe application.
“We always thought the project was a fascinating way to explore the European city,” says Browne.
“While we were working on it, Covid hit and there was a lot of talk about what was going to happen after Covid. What will cities look like, how will people live? Central to the nomination was the fact that so much of the novel takes place in public places and that public space was so important to Joyce.
“We incorporated the requirements that each partner had to use a public space in their own city, which became quite poignant when all of a sudden there was no more social interaction in the cities. We all needed to review the way we live and interact as human beings and the project seemed very relevant in this regard.
As they began to chart a virtual course through Europe, Doran and Browne unearthed an invaluable resource, the detailed diagram Joyce designed to explain the thinking behind what he called “my cursed monster novel.” It consists of an elaborate chart, linking each of the 18 episodes of Odysseus to its corresponding episode in Homer’s Odyssey. He provided them with a useful roadmap.
“We thought it would be interesting if we could develop a similar diagram that would help us identify a particular city by seeing matches to the episode. We would then go out and find potential partners,” says Browne.
“Based on our own bio-festival model, we have developed a word cloud for each episode, to give our partners an idea of the range of possibilities, of how you might react through other art forms. Some of them had never worked that way – or even thought of it. One or two said they simply took the word cloud and worked from there.
“We also wanted to look at the issues affecting Europe today and bring them into the mix – migration, urban renewal, social media, food distribution and consumption, sexual identity, mental well-being. It was extraordinary to find in the novel so many elements of contemporary Europe that could correspond to a city and a particular project.
A patchwork of fascinating collaborations and associations began to evolve. The Lestrygonians episode will be set in the Basque town of San Sebastián, famous for its gastronomic culture and its tradition of pintxos/tapas, which echoes Bloom’s picky eating habits.
Circe’s nighttime episode will be delivered in Oulu, Finland, where the Lumo Light Festival will explore mental health issues through the dramatic use of light and dark. For Chapter 9 of Ulysses, Joyce’s father/son episode Hamlet (Homer’s Scylla and Charybdis), Grob Theater Copenhagen explores related themes through its monodrama festival.
“In a Homeric sense, we pushed the boat out of Athens. And then to flip it and see Ireland like Ithaca, coming home…it was amazing’
“When we disembarked for the trip to Athens, it was a nice time,” says Doran. “The involvement of the Onassis Cultural Center was a wonderful gesture of validation. In a Homeric sense, we pushed the boat out of Athens. And then to flip it over and see Ireland like Ithaca, coming home…it was amazing.
“In June 2024, Dublin will host the 309 Questions, the catechism which Joyce imitated. Questions about the arts and society of tomorrow will have been submitted by the partners to be debated during a three-day symposium. And then each of the cities will send a female artist to Derry for a final culminating performance, which is so fitting for the city, in terms of love for a big public event and a spectacle.
“We always felt Derry was the natural place to end the Penelope episode,” says Browne.
“It’s a city of women, dating back to the days of shirt factories and women in the heart of the city. And there’s a nice pun in that in Derry, when people greet each other, they say “Yes!” and that, of course, is Molly Bloom’s famous last word in the novel, “…yes, I said yes, I will Yes”.
“You can’t guarantee a legacy from a project like this, but we’ve built so many interactions through the artist exchanges and the various symposiums. We create a climate conducive to the exchange of ideas and knowledge and the development of friendships across Europe. We hope more things will come out of it in the years to come.
Ulysses: A European Odyssey will begin in Athens on September 19, 2022 and travel to Budapest, Trieste, Marseille, Berlin, San Sebastian, Copenhagen, Istanbul, Cluj, Zurich, Eleusis, Oulu, Lisbon and Dublin, ending in Derry in June 16, 2024.